Matt Diaz

Matt Diaz

After an 11 year career in Major League Baseball, Matt Diaz was at a crossroads. He looked toward the two biggest influences in his life to find his next step.

“Besides my parents, no one has had a bigger impact on my life than Santa Fe High School baseball Coach John Carpenter,” said Diaz, who currently coaches baseball for the Lakeland Christian Vikings. “He’s the reason I coach today. I only wish to have the impact on others – on and off the field – that he had on me.”

Born to Ed and Gwen Diaz – both Division I athletes at Penn State – Diaz grew up like a lot of athletic kids in the South: outside.

“We did everything. I played soccer, flag football, basketball at Simpson Park,” he said. “Dad was a football guy, but we all loved baseball.”

Dad – who went on to have a lengthy baseball coaching career of his own – even built a batting cage in the back yard for his four sons, Zach, Matt, Ben and Jonny.

“We started out lining it with chain link fence,” said Diaz. “It wasn’t long before we had to swap it out with netting because my brothers and I were denting the fence.”

Meanwhile, mom would throw wiffleballs to the boys as long as they wanted – within reason.

“She was great,” he said. “I knocked her out with a wiffleball once – I thought I killed her. Next day she was out there tossing to us again. Mom and dad never pushed us, but they never turned us down either. We were just always asking.”

The Diaz’s sought out a high school that would allow the sons to remain a multi-sport family. They found their new home at Santa Fe Catholic High School in Lakeland.

“It was at Santa Fe that I thought I might make something of baseball,” he said. “Coach Carpenter saw something in me – I had volunteered to catch varsity bullpen – and I made the team as an eighth grader.”

It didn’t hurt that his older brother, Zach, was a star pitcher on the team. Big brother was there for Matt when they both made the jump to college baseball as well.

“He was already a pitcher for the Florida State Seminoles when I went there,” said Diaz. “He even hung a change-up to me for a big hit – I was MVP of that Fall Game.”

After two spectacular years at FSU – not only did he help lead the Seminoles to two College World Series appearances, including the 1999 title game, he was also a 1st Team Freshman All-American for The Sporting News in 1998 and a National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association 1st Team All American his sophomore year – Diaz had rightly earned attention from Major League Baseball scouts. Drafted by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 17th round of the draft, he began his way through the minor leagues.

“The Rays got a lot of outfield talent in that 1999 draft,” he said. “Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli the next year and Jonny Gomes the year after that. They were stacked.”

Through the crowd, Diaz made it to the Major Leagues in 2003 and returned in 2004, only to be cut at the end of the year. Signing with Kansas City, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 2005.

“I really thought my baseball career might be ending,” he said. “I’d already been through the minors. I was married and ready for kids. My wife college-graduate wife was working at a cash register to support my baseball habit. It was rough.”

But he made the Braves Major League roster out of Spring Training and never looked back. He credits sticking with the Braves to manager Bobby Cox and Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.

“Bobby took care of his players – it is something I think of even today,” said Diaz. “There was a game early in 2006 when I missed the cutoff man. Bobby talked to me in the tunnel, asked me if I understood what I did. We talked about it. The next day in the papers, he didn’t bring it up. He didn’t blame me. That meant a lot. I’d never experienced that before. He was always there for us.”

It was again in that 2006 season when a star baseball player went out of his way to offer help.

“I had been up and down a lot – and I’d come up and sit on the bench. It wasn’t something I was used to,” he said. “So I was sitting there with my head down when Chipper came over and asked me to meet him the next day in the cages. He made an adjustment to my swing – I got two hits in Philly the next day and went five-for-five the next game in Miami. He didn’t have to do that, he’s a Hall of Famer. But he knew how helping me would help the team. He helped me to help us. It meant a lot.”

Diaz spent the next five years with the Braves, hitting over .300 three times. He returned for another two year tour before finishing his career with Miami. He then transitioned into the broadcast booth for the Braves as well as MLB Network Radio.

Today, Diaz reflects on how his path led him to Lakeland Christian.

“I had been reflecting on baseball and Coach Carpenter when the phone rang. It was a high school asking if I was interested in coaching,” he said. “A few weeks later at a parent meeting, the head of school here (at Lakeland Christian) asked me if I’d consider getting involved at our program. And here I am.”

And while Lakeland Christian has enjoyed back-to-back county championships, that isn’t what he’s most proud of.

“Of everything, the fact that all of my seniors who have wanted to play college ball have gotten the opportunity, that’s what I’m most proud of,” he said. “I have a duty to get them ready for the next level, to impart what I’ve been taught. As Coach Carpenter taught us, my job is to help them be better students, better people, better Christians, and better baseball players. That’s my goal.”